Don't boycott Russia's Olympics: Joe Schlesinger

Russia's controversial new law banning public discussion of "non-traditional sexual relationships" is provoking an Olympic-sized backlash around the world. But an outright boycott of the Sochi Winter Games is not the answer, Joe Schlesinger writes.

Russia's anti-gay law is provoking an Olympian backlash, but an outright boycott is not the answer

Russian police detain a gay activist at a protest in St. Petersburg in June. Russia's new law, aimed it says at protecting minors, makes it illegal to discuss or advocate homosexuality in a public place. (Alexander Demianchuk / Reuters)

The greatest Olympic moment I remember is my father's roaring cheers when an American sprinter won the 100-metre dash at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. I was eight and we were listening to the event on the radio.

Normally my father wasn't all that interested in sports or, as far as I knew, in Americans. What made him go bonkers about this race was that Jesse Owens's victory was a poke in Adolf Hitler's eye because the sprinter was black.

I cheered, too, and not just because my dad did. Even at eight I knew that Hitler had it in for blacks as well as Jews. And so having Owens win so spectacularly — he won three other medals and broke three world records — was indeed a reason for a little Jewish kid to cheer.

At the time, of course, I was unaware of the intricate politics involved in these particular Games.

At first, the Nazis wanted to exclude blacks and Jews. But when some countries threatened to boycott the Olympics, Hitler backed down.

Gold medal winner Jesse Owens of the U.S., and Germany's Lutz Long, right, after winning medals in the long jump in the 1936 Games. Afterward, Owens, the star of the Games, and Long walked arm in arm around the playing field. (Associated Press)

The victories of Owens and other African-American track and field athletes — they won a total of 14 medals — may have taken the shine off Hitler's agenda of demonstrating Aryan racial superiority.

But on all other fronts the Berlin Olympics were a triumph for him. In a world enfeebled by the mass poverty and widespread political paralysis of the Great Depression, he staged the most lavish Games ever and put on a show of German national unity and activism.

So backing down on the racial front to avoid a boycott paid off.

Today, Russia's Vladimir Putin faces a conundrum similar to the one Hitler faced.

Does he really want to unleash a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi by enforcing his new anti-gay legislation to arrest foreign athletes and, perhaps, tourists suspected of being gay or exhibiting pro-gay allegiances?

Long history of Olympic cynicism

The crass domestic political calculation of Russia's anti-gay laws is hardly unique in the history of a movement dedicated to the brotherhood of mankind. Cynically self-serving politics has been at the centre of the Games since their founding in the Olympiads of ancient Greece.

Those games were meant to bring about a truce between the constantly contending Greek city states. But it didn't always work out that way.

In 420 BC, for instance, at a time when Athens and Sparta were at each other's throats in the Peloponnesian War, the Spartans were banned from the contests for taking advantage of the Olympiad truce to attack an Athenian fort.

Fast forward to the modern Olympics and we have seen much the same thing. In 1920, Germany and Austria were barred for having started — and lost — the First World War. Ditto for Germany and Japan in the 1948 Olympics.

The battlefields of war and politics ruled and still rule the playing field. Countries have boycotted the Games for all sorts of reasons. But what is probably most remarkable is the futility of these boycotts.

The U.S. and 64 other countries, Canada included, boycotted the 1980 summer Olympics in Moscow in protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Russians shrugged it off with a tit-for-tat boycott of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

What finally did make the Kremlin withdraw from Afghanistan in 1988 was not the boycott but the resistance of the Afghan mujahedin, bolstered by the billions the U.S. spent in arming them.

The losers

The big losers in all these boycotts were the athletes. And not just the ones who were deprived of being able to compete in the sports they had spent years training for.

The ones who won the medals were also losers in a curious way. The lack of competition from the boycotting countries — just think of the 65 countries absent the Moscow Games — inevitably took the shine off the winners' medals.

In this current situation, the biggest losers could be Russia's gays, who are already being persecuted. If there is to be a boycott of Sochi, they could well be scapegoated as the unpatriotic cause of it.

Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko (pointing), says Russia's new law prohibiting gay activism will be enforced during the Sochi Winter Games. (Igor Yakunin / Associated Press)

This would make a mockery of any boycott that is a protest against the country's anti-gay legislation.

Moscow would just brush it off as a sign of the decadence of the boycotting nations and their distress at seeing the new Russia emerge as a strong and moral society.

There have been suggestions — notably by U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer — to have athletes make their opposition clear at the opening ceremonies by waving rainbow flags. But such a broad brush approach could just ruin the Games by turning them from a sporting event into a political battlefield right from the start.

There is, I believe, a better way: a demonstration of support for the LGBT movement from the winners' podiums.

There is even a precedent from the 1968 Mexico City Olympics when two American medalists — Tommie Smith and John Carlos — demonstrated against racial segregation by raising their black-gloved fists in a black power salute.

They paid for their audacity. The moss-backed International Olympic Committee of the day expelled them from the Games.

But in the history of the Olympics, theirs is still a momentous gesture.

Today's protest has already started, albeit in a small way, but this time around the stakes are higher. That much was evident last week when two Swedish women athletes at the world athletic championship in Moscow staged the tiniest of pro-gay displays by painting their fingernails in rainbow colours.

All it took was 10 painted nails for the Russians to get on their high horse to denounce the gesture. By the next day, after the athletes were warned by Swedish athletic federation officials they were breaking the rules of conduct, the offending nails were repainted … all red.

It’s going to be hard for the athletes at the Sochi Games to show their disapproval of Russia’s anti-gay laws. It’ll take courage not just to cope with harassment by the Russians, but also with possible sanctions by the IOC and other athletic organizations.

It’ll also take clout. And clout in the Olympic Games means winning medals, breaking records, and gaining fame and a following of fans.

If enough medalists, straight as well as gay, unfurled rainbow flags from the winners’ podium it would be a strong message to the world – and above all to the Russians — that in the 21st century the diversity of sexual orientation is a basic human right. The signal would be as strong as that sent by Jesse Owens in Berlin more than half a century ago.